Johnson Ready to Step Up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- When the 2014-15 Tar Heel basketball team stepped on the Smith Center floor on Thursday afternoon for its first summer practice session, Brice Johnson officially began his junior campaign. It'll be a season during which much will be expected of him.

When James Michael McAdoo announced his decision to enter the NBA Draft in April, Johnson's initial reaction was that of surprise.

"I thought he was going to return and I'd be able to play one more year with him," Johnson said.

After nearly three months to think about it, Johnson has a better grasp on the ramifications of McAdoo's departure. A starting spot, and an increased role, is his for the taking.

McAdoo started all 34 games at the power forward spot – Johnson's natural position – last season.

"I have to be that person that steps up," Johnson said.

Despite being limited by McAdoo's presence (19.4 minutes/game) and sporadic opportunities out of position ("I'm sick of playing people that are 280-290"), Johnson was UNC's most productive and efficient big man last season.

He's the team's second leading returning scorer (10.3 points/game), and was the No. 2 rebounder a year ago (6.1/game). He led the team in field goal percentage (56.6 percent) and blocked shots (1.3/game).

But as impressive as those numbers were for a reserve, he closed the 2013-14 season with remarkable offensive efficiency. Over the last 13 games, he shot 66.0 percent from the field. Even better, he shot 74.2 percent over the last four games.

He appeared on his way to more of the same against Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament – with two points and two offensive rebounds in the first two minutes – but a badly sprained ankle sidelined him for the rest of the game. And, in his absence, UNC's season ended.

"It was very heartbreaking knowing that I probably could have been the difference in that game."

Roy Williams's offseason meeting with Johnson echoed similar sentiments as the year before: increase strength, improve defense.

As to the former, Johnson continues to show progress.

"It's starting to get a lot easier – I've gained a lot of weight since freshman year," Johnson said.

He arrived as a freshman at 187 pounds, climbed to 210 as a sophomore and says he's now at 217, with the goal of hitting 225 by the start of the season.

That wasn't enough, however, to handle Tyler Hansbrough in a pickup game on Tuesday.

"On my goodness," Johnson recalled. "I was just trying to guard him, he's a tough guy to guard – he goes hard. He hit me in my chest a couple times and I thought I was going to die. He's a big dude."

Battles with psychos aside, Johnson appears focused on the task at hand – and the opportunity that awaits.

"I have to keep working in the gym with Coach (Hubert) Davis, working hard with (S&C coach) Jonas (Sahratian) – just be able to be that person that Coach (Williams) really needs out there."

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